Pope Francis will fly directly to the U.S. from Cuba during his papal visits to the two countries in September. A detailed schedule of the Roman Catholic leader’s activities during the trip released by the Vatican Tuesday revealed the pontiff will depart from the Antonia Maceo International Airport in Santiago and arrive at the Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington Sept. 22, underscoring the diplomatic objectives of his landmark journey.
Francis has been credited with playing a crucial role in the historic breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations late last year that led to the opening of relations between the two countries after more than half a century of hostility.
Officials have specifically cited the Vatican’s hosting of a diplomatic meeting between the two nations in October as being instrumental in the subsequent U.S. policy shift toward Cuba, such as its being dropped from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and a prisoner swap.
As the first Latin American pope, Francis has been seen as uniquely positioned to bridge the divide between the two countries, given his knowledge of the Cuban situation as well as his efforts to establish the Vatican as a broker of diplomacy around the world.
While in Cuba, Francis anticipates meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro as well as with Catholic officials in the country, at what is expected to be a momentous juncture in the church’s relationship with the communist nation.
Papal visits historically have enabled the church to play a more active role in Cuba, a country where ostracism of Catholicism was official state policy only a few decades ago. As one of the few independent institutions in the island nation, the church has played a role in pushing Cuba’s communist authorities toward broader reforms.
The first stop on Francis’ tour of the U.S. will be Washington, where he expects meeting with President Barack Obama. He will then travel to New York and Philadelphia. Francis will address the U.S. Congress while in Washington, making him the first pope to do so.